Reengineering Life

Scientists Are Gene Editing Coral to Help Them Survive Climate Change

CRISPR was used to identify a gene for heat tolerance in corals

Emily Mullin
Future Human
Published in
5 min readNov 18, 2020

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Filtered image of coral against a background of pipette and DNA.
Photo illustration; Image source: Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Reengineering Life is a series from Future Human about the astonishing ways genetic technology is changing humanity and the world around us.

In 2016, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology recorded the hottest sea temperatures on record near the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system. The heat wave lasted for weeks, triggering the worst bleaching event the reef has ever experienced. Nearly 30% of its corals died as a result.

Rising temperatures due to climate change threaten to bring on more coral bleaching and mass die-offs. Coral reefs are home to an estimated 25% of all marine species at some point in their life cycle, protect coastal areas from storms and erosion, and provide jobs to local communities.

In hopes of saving reefs on the brink of collapse, scientists are racing to understand why some coral survive and others don’t. Of particular interest are the genes behind coral survival. Using the gene-editing technique CRISPR, one group of researchers has pinpointed a gene responsible for heat tolerance in coral from the Great Barrier Reef.

The discovery, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help guide coral conservation efforts and potentially lead to a 23andMe-type test for corals. A genetic test that could tell scientists which corals are most at risk of bleaching, or alternatively, which reefs may be more resistant to it, would be incredibly useful for conservation, lead author Phillip Cleves, PhD, a marine geneticist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, tells Future Human. Some corals, for instance, can live in extreme environments.

“The main problem in the field has been the fact that we haven’t been able to figure out what genes are playing a role in either coral bleaching or coral survival to heat stress,” Cleves tells Future Human. “We didn’t have genetic tools to allow us to ask what their genes do.”

Cleves and his collaborators have figured out how to use CRISPR in coral. Like a pair of genetic scissors, CRISPR…

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Emily Mullin
Future Human

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.